Toxic smoke darkened São Paulo’s afternoon sky. Satellites traced it to over 70,000 fires a big increase from the last few years. Heads of state warned the “rain forest -- the lungs of our planet -- is on fire.” Social media exploded with apocalyptic images and pleas to “Save the Amazon.”

Burnt Down Amazon Tropical Rain Forest, Richest Ecosystem on Earth Destroyed to Ashes for Cow Grazing and Soya Crops
Image: Getty

We cannot let this opportunity to raise awareness and stop forest loss slip away. But equally we need to really understand what is causing the fires to know how best to act. That requires that we understand and support the needs of the farmers and local communities who sit at the base of all food supply chains globally.

After all the handshakes and hype, the G7’s combined anti-fire pledge of $20m is a drop in the bucket. However, significant amounts of international finance from the Amazon Fund to the Global Climate Fund are available if the Brazilian government is prepared to work in partnership with international donors. Far more vexing is how best to invest it. Although decision-makers want fast results, the diffuse nature of our predicament confounds a top-down approach.

Few fires tracked by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research were ignited by accident or were naturally occurring. To the contrary, fire is our species’ oldest tool, deployed by farmers through millennia to clear land, attract game or enrich soil. The current fires, according to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, are to convert or prevent return of forests for crop and cattle production. More than 40 percent of forest loss globally is for the production of cattle, soyabeans, oil palm and rubber. Rising consumer demand for food and fibre bring these commodities into our refrigerators, printers, shampoos and tires.

Against mounting global development pressures, simply throwing foreign dollars and domestic armies at thousands of flames is at best a superficial and temporary fix, one that ignores human agency.

Sanctioning one Amazon country won’t stop those fires burningacross Angolan, Indonesian, Zambia and Congolese rainforests. Shunning consumer goods punishes responsible companies trying to exclude deforestation-laced sources. Unethical laggards take market share from certified brands.

We face a classic wicked problem. Halting fires driving forest loss demands collective action by multiple stakeholders with often competing interests. Unless solutions work for local people, even leading public-private partnerships – government, corporate, and consumer collaborations to enhance transparent accountability – can fall short.

If the fate of our rainforest commons hinges on the Amazon, the Amazon hinges on the millions of local farmers and ranchers working in and around the forest. It is she or he who determines whether old trees live or burn. Most are just trying to make a living to support their families. One of the great modern tragedies is that two thirds of the 820 million classed as chronically under nourished are farmers. Many of those farmers stand at a tipping point. We can’t force them back or forward. But you can buy back their diesel and matches, offering a premium, and call it a bargain.

No one saw this potential bargain better than Chico Mendes, an Amazon rubber tapper who was assassinated for slowing deforestation in its tracks in 1988. He knew intimately the temptation to ignite forest-converting fires. To resist it, his movement leveraged the human fulcrum in three ways.

First, it forged strategic political partnerships. Just as worker solidarity grew through local trade unions, his local struggle from the tiny river town of Xapuri gained strength and legitimacy through a diverse global network – and vice-versa.

Next, it demanded rights. Mendes appreciated nature’s profusion of rainforest plant and animal species. But rather than preserve biodiversity in fenced-off sanctuaries, he empowered rubber-tapping seringueiros and tribes to win tenure and extract wealth – natural latex, nuts, fruit, oil, medicine and fibres – from living trees, thus maintaining the forest’s beauty, structure and integrity.

Ultimately, it fought fires with finance. Lacking might, the movement could only offer words and pragmatic incentives, like secure tenure. By never losing sight of the forest worker’s needs, it helped rubber tappers negotiate with buyers. It urged development banks to repurpose or restructure loans, or fund new outlets to market forest products. It pioneered working ‘extractive reserves,’ now accounting for 13% of the intact Amazon.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Today, the shift to deforestation-free models, driven by both market and policy forces, offers the opportunity to expand capital financing opportunities and drive change at scale. Although challenges exist, an examination of the business cases strongly suggests that a virtuous cycle towards large-scale deforestation-free financing is feasible. This in turn could help expand the availability of capital and reduce its cost to deforestation-free suppliers. Brazil itself has shown how it can reduce deforestation while boosting agricultural production.

In an era of far worse fires and death threats, Mendes anchorednature’s resilience in the fate of marginalized people: “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees. Then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.

Today, we can take up that unfinished legacy. A broad-based, people-centred, incentives-driven approach can quietly ensure a ‘forest positive’ trajectory spreads and advances – from the tree roots up.